Perhaps it’s those pesky migraine headaches, with the accompanying nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity to light, that threaten to incapacitate you on a regular or sporadic basis. Or maybe you struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition possibly connected with Epstein-Barr virus, that makes even taking a shower exhausting. Or you deal with rheumatic arthritis, an auto-immune illness in which symptoms can flare up and go into remission at seemingly random times.
Trying to manage a long-term health condition can feel like a monumental task. Indeed, it can challenge us in ways we may never have anticipated. Still, there are things we can do to ease the journey.
- Develop a treatment plan with experienced practitioners. This may involve a medical doctor, psychotherapist, and peer support group. Additional options include specialists such as a rheumatologist, neurologist, physical therapist, nutritionist, or acupuncturist. Whether you seek Western medicine or an alternative health perspective, don’t try to go it alone.
- Listen to your gut when meeting with health care providers. Do they seem to really hear you, or do they seem to be sticking with a rigid treatment protocol? How up-to-date on current treatment modalities are they? How willing are they to collaborate with your other health providers and you on treatment? How available are they to you in the case of an urgent matter? How comfortable do you feel with them, overall?
- Check in with your treatment team on a regular basis. Be clear and honest about how you’ve been doing. Keeping a journal of your symptoms and other factors in your day-to-day life (sleep quality, nutrition, stressors, etc.) can come in handy during your medical appointments, as you can better provide a summary of your progress (or lack thereof).
- Have a safe place to express your feelings. This could be with loved ones, a therapist, a support group, or a journal. Studies have shown that when we put words to our emotions, we decrease the amount of stress such feelings have on us. We also become clearer on what we might need at the time, such as a hug, a nap, or reassurance.
- Reevaluate your treatment plan from time to time. Do this on your own as well as with your health providers. Your needs and priorities may change. For instance, a medication which at one time had been beneficial to you may no longer be helping, or the side effects may no longer be worth it to you. Or you’re interested in trying a new or additional approach to treatment, such as experimenting with a dietary change, taking a nutritional supplement, or checking out biofeedback. Keep your mind and your options open.
- Stay in touch with your emotional and social support system. Especially in the case of chronic illness, isolating yourself from other people can be soul-draining. Make plans to get together with family and friends on a regular basis. Doing so can boost your spirits, give you a broader perspective on life, distract you from your personal troubles, and benefit other people. If symptoms from your illness flare up unexpectedly and you need to cancel social plans, then so be it. As much as you are comfortable, let people in your life know that you have a condition which may require last-minute changes in agendas. Most people will understand, especially if they already have a sense of your medical issue.
- Involve loved ones in your care. When you tell family and friends what lifestyle choices you’re making to help manage your condition, and ask for the help you need, you allow others to feel useful while also demystifying your situation. For instance, if you need eight hours of sleep a night, and you do best when getting to bed by 9:00 p.m., or you need help getting to a medical appointment, share this information. Your relationships can become closer and deeper than if you attempt to keep a stiff upper lip and hide your difficulties.
- Take good care of yourself. This sounds obvious, but it bears repeating and can be easier said than done. If you feel as if you’ve been run over by a truck and it seems like a Herculean effort just to get out of bed, for instance, a pot of coffee may seem like a great idea. And perhaps the large jolt of caffeine does give you a powerful energy and mood boost in the short run. However, when intense anxiety, racing thoughts, and heartburn hit you later in the day, you may feel differently. Be honest with yourself about what foods work best for you, how much sleep you need, and what sorts of exercise strengthen rather than strain you, and stick with these principles.
- Plan activities to look forward to every day. This could be a stroll in your neighborhood, a favorite book to read, a phone call with a friend, or a movie. Keep a list of what you enjoy doing, or what you think you might enjoy, to remind yourself if you feel discouraged, and add to this list on a regular basis. When you engage in fun activities, you not only lift your spirits, but you boost your body’s self-healing capacities, too.
- Remember that some days will be easier than others. At times you’ll have more energy, be in better spirits, and have your wits more about you than on other days. Learn to go with the flow, take things one day at a time, and to do your best, given your present circumstances. Some days you may need extra rest, whereas on other days you might have the strength to get out and about and would in fact feel better about yourself and life by being active. Some days you may feel despondent, and some days you may feel hopeful. Be patient and kind with yourself at all times.
- Keep in mind that you are more than your illness. When in the midst of physical and emotional pain, it may be difficult to think of yourself as more than a bundle of ailments. However, truth is that you are here on this earth for a unique purpose, one that is bigger than your medical condition. So don’t let your illness define and limit you unnecessarily. Perhaps the way in which you deal with your health is actually part of your larger purpose. Whether or not you believe this to be the case, continue to be engaged in life, and in other people’s lives, to the best of your ability.
- Appreciate the good in your life as it is. As much as you would like to be free of illness, the fact is that right now, and for the foreseeable future, this is part of your path. Actively look for things to be grateful for, be it that thoughtful friend who checks in on you regularly via phone, your loving and supportive spouse, a good laugh, fresh flowers, or food on the table.
Know that you are ultimately the best authority on your health. While health providers may have many years of formal education and experience, which should be respected, nobody lives in your body, soul, and heart 24 hours a day, but you. Only you know your priorities, tolerance levels, philosophies, and life goals, all of which need to be considered when determining how to manage your health condition.